President Trump Pardons Oregon Ranchers Convicted In 2012 Arson Case

Jul 10, 2018
Originally published on July 10, 2018 7:55 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump has pardoned two Oregon cattle ranchers whose criminal case inspired a 41-day anti-government occupation of a federal wildlife refuge back in 2016. The two ranchers are Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven Hammond. The Trump White House says the Obama administration had been, quote, "overzealous" in going after the Hammonds for arson back in 2012. Here to talk about the implications of their pardon is NPR's Kirk Siegler. Hey, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just first start us off by telling us a little more about the Hammonds and why was their case so significant?

SIEGLER: OK, right. So the Hammonds, depending on who you ask, are either victims of an overreaching federal government or they're these scofflaw ranchers who repeatedly tested the patience of federal land managers when it came to rules and regulations in cattle grazing on public land over the course of the decades.

Now, to picture where this all took place, you travel to eastern Oregon to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is this prized grass and wetlands that's important for birds, but it's also one of the only places in the middle of the desert there where cattlemen can graze their cows. And the Hammonds had had a number of run-ins over this decades-long feud with the federal government. But they all stemmed from this overall feeling by the family that the federal government was pushing them off the land. Now, the government eventually convicted them under a federal terrorism law because they had set illegal fires that spread to public land.

CHANG: And how did their fight, which started out as a local matter it sounded, blow up into this huge cause that drew in people from all over the western United States?

SIEGLER: Well, they are - the Hammonds are kind of the symbol of federal overreach for those who are upset over the federal government's rules and regulations in the rural West. And their story was seized on by the Bundy family and their militia supporters. And as we know, the Bundys and their supporters traveled to Oregon in 2016 right after the new year to protest their imprisonment and promote their own anti-federal government causes. And this, of course, spilled into the armed takeover at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge itself.

CHANG: OK. So there are a lot of layers to this story. And now the Trump administration is calling the government's treatment of the Hammonds unjust. I imagine their supporters are probably really pleased with these pardons now.

SIEGLER: Well, exactly, and I should say also that these pardons were not unexpected. The family's lawyer, though, tells NPR that he's hopeful that the Hammonds will be back within days working back on the land in Oregon. Of course, they've been in prison here in Southern California actually for a number of years. And, you know, as for their supporters, like you say, I think it's safe to say they're feeling emboldened. Remember; many of the militants who were acquitted by a jury for leading the armed takeover at the refuge or they were acquitted by the jury...

CHANG: Yeah.

SIEGLER: ...The government's separate case against the Bundys in Nevada recently collapsed. Let's listen to Ryan Bundy, who helped lead the takeover of the refuge. He's talking here to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN BUNDY: Today shows that, hey, we were right. We went there for a good reason. And our efforts have finally come to fruition.

SIEGLER: And also, you know, the interesting thing here is that the Hammonds at least originally anyway had said they didn't want the Bundys coming to Oregon. You know, sure, they welcomed the attention to their fight, but like many actual working ranchers, they were a little uncomfortable with outsiders coming in and, you know, turning this into something bigger.

CHANG: So the Hammonds are free and will soon be heading back to Oregon, but what does this news today do to the federal government's overall ability to manage and oversee public lands?

SIEGLER: Well, I don't want to sound like I'm punting here, but, you know, there are a lot of open questions. You could make the case that these pardons raise real questions about what federal public land law even means anymore.

CHANG: Yeah.

SIEGLER: And, you know, will other ranchers who graze on public land start openly defying the government, citing these pardons? I personally don't think that may happen in a lot of cases, but it's still worth considering. And, you know, I think one of the more untold stories here, Ailsa, is that there are real safety concerns for the scores of federal employees who live and work in the rural West out on the land who have had threats made against them, guns pulled on them.

You know, we're talking soil scientists, rangeland specialists, men and women who staff federal recreation sites. You know, a lot of people I talk to out there think another standoff or confrontation of some sort is inevitable. And, you know, it's a question - what, if anything, will the Trump administration do to stop future standoffs or more defiance of federal law - remains to be seen.

CHANG: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler speaking to us from NPR West. Thank you, Kirk.

SIEGLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.